GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING The plot can be dismissed by crotchety viewers as borderline soap opera -- in more modern times, its character dynamics could easily play out on the Ewing ranch in Dallas -- but this adaptation of Tracy Chevalier's bestseller soars primarily because of its visuals, an appropriate strength for a movie about an artist. The works of 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer are notable for their meticulous attention to detail as well as their astonishing capture of light and use of color; working in tandem with ace cinematographer Eduardo Serra (The Wings of the Dove) and production designer Ben van Os (Orlando), director Peter Webber follows suit by transforming his film into a live-action facsimile of a Vermeer painting. Similar to Shakespeare In Love in the manner in which it combines period fact with pure speculation, the movie (like its source) proposes that the figure in the artist's "Girl With a Pearl Earring" is a 17-year-old maid (Scarlett Johansson) newly employed at the Vermeer residence. The quiet and withdrawn woman eventually becomes not only muse to the painter (Colin Firth) but also his soulmate, displaying a sensitivity toward the medium that draws his instant approval even as it alienates his high-strung wife (Essie Davis). Tom Wilkinson (like Firth, a Shakespeare In Love alumnus) provides the villainy as Vermeer's lecherous patron and in effect expands the story's parameters to make the film as much about societal role-playing as about artistic expression. ***
THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE With apologies to the computer artisans who revolutionized the animated field with the likes of Toy Story and Shrek, it would appear that the best 'toon flicks are presently being produced outside the USA. Japan's 2002 Oscar winner Spirited Away was the best animated feature since Beauty and the Beast, and now from France we get The Triplets of Belleville, which makes Finding Nemo look about as cutting-edge as a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Writer-director Sylvain Chomet has cited Jacques Tati, Buster Keaton, Tex Avery and Nick Park (creator of Wallace & Gromit) among his many influences, and his film is indeed a melting pot of their styles and storylines, with a healthy dollop of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's City of Lost Children thrown in for good measure. Its jumping-off point is Champion, a lonely little boy who, thanks to the support of his kindly grandmother, grows up to become an accomplished cyclist set to take part in the Tour de France. But after Champion is kidnapped by the French Mafia, it's up to his granny and their aging pooch Bruno to rescue him; along the way, they receive unexpected aid from the title trio, elderly singing sisters who used to perform with Fred Astaire and Josephine Baker back in the day. Mere words can't convey the sheer inventiveness of this enterprise, which takes as much care in delineating the backdrops as it does etching out its cast of quirky characters. ***
ALONG CAME POLLY OK, so the stars have no chemistry together (Jennifer Aniston's channeling Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Ben Stiller's channeling Ben Stiller in just about everything). And writer-director John Hamburg doesn't even begin to mine the comic possibilities of his premise, which examines the budding relationship between an overly cautious businessman who analyzes the risk factor in everything and an easy-going woman with a blind ferret and a spontaneous nature. Not to mention, the potty humor goes waaay overboard. Yet two factors save this from being a disaster: a terrific supporting cast, and Hamburg's ability to nail the little moments even as he's screwing up the big picture. These factors allow the film to provide more laughs than one would have initially thought possible. **1/2
BIG FISH Tim Burton goes for the (Oscar) gold with this colorful fable that attempts to tackle hefty issues using the same mixture of melodrama and mirth that worked so well for Forrest Gump. But forced whimsy isn't really whimsy at all, and for all its surface eccentricities, this turns out to be one of Burton's most conventional works, relating the story of a journalist (Billy Crudup) who'd like to get to know his dying dad (Albert Finney) before it's too late. But that's easier said than done, since Pop is incapable of relating anything but outlandish tall tales involving his exploits as a young man (played in flashback by Ewan McGregor). A stellar cast does what it can with this meandering picture that only accumulates any emotional steam during its closing quarter-hour. **1/2
THE BUTTERFLY EFFECT In this redundant sci-fi tale, Ashton Kutcher plays a troubled college student haunted by a horrific childhood that managed to incorporate pedophilia, a psychotic dad, a dead baby, and a dog set on fire. But after discovering that, by accessing the journals he kept as a kid, he's able to travel back to that period in time, he sets about changing the events of his life -- and in effect creates alternate realities about as dismal as the one he left behind. Initially intriguing, this quickly turns silly and then eventually wears out its welcome altogether: By the time Kutcher makes his umpteenth time jump, I was praying that we would all end up landing in a better movie. *1/2
COLD MOUNTAIN This adaptation of Charles Frazier's novel turns out to be least compelling when it focuses on the fluttering hearts of its protagonists, a Confederate soldier and the woman he loves. Individually, the performances by Jude Law and Nicole Kidman are fine, yet their scenes together deliver little kick. Luckily, most of the movie keeps them apart, with the soldier making his way back to his North Carolina hometown so they can be reunited. His trek is slowed by his encounters with various characters, and these interludes spark the picture. So, too, do the sequences back home, thanks to Renee Zellweger: Her portrayal as a feisty pioneer woman cuts through the occasional sheen of stuffy self-importance, thus ensuring this Mountain never deteriorates into a molehill of unrelenting melancholy. ***
THE COOLER Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy), a sad sack whose very presence causes everyone around him to experience bad luck, is employed by Vegas casino manager Shelly Kaplow (Alec Baldwin) to "cool" off customers enjoying a hot streak. Yet once Bernie falls for a sympathetic cocktail waitress named Natalie (Maria Bello), he begins to spread good luck, a situation that calls for drastic measures on Shelly's part. The romance between Bernie and Natalie is both believable and extremely touching, and Macy and Bello deserve kudos for their uninhibited (in all senses of the word) performances. Yet it's Baldwin who delivers the most memorable turn: As an "old-school" Vegas bigwig whose brutality mingles uneasily with his unusual code of honor, he hasn't been this good since his pitbull act in 1992's Glengarry Glen Ross. ***
THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING Pulling off a successful threepeat, director Peter Jackson wraps up J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy saga with a dazzling chapter guaranteed to please true believers. At 200 minutes, the movie is long but not necessarily overlong: The super-sized length allows many cast members to strut their stuff, and several new creatures, from an army of ghostly marauders to a gigantic spider in the best Harryhausen tradition, are staggering to behold. Ultimately, though, this final act belongs to the ringbearer Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his companions, faithful Sam (Sean Astin) and treacherous Gollum (the brilliant CGI creation voiced by Andy Serkis). This is a movie of expensive visual effects and expansive battle scenes, but when it comes to truly making its mark, we have to thank all the little people. ***1/2
MONA LISA SMILE An unlikely cross between Dead Poets Society and The Stepford Wives, this casts Julia Roberts as an art teacher who arrives at Wellesley College in 1953, ready to change the world to the chorus of "Carpe Diems." Instead, she's shocked to learn that her students plan to shelf their education and become housewives. So it's up to Saint Julia to save the stuffy college from itself, since no one else can possibly match her sheer fabulousness. Roberts is such a bundle of modern tics that she's as out of place in this setting as Bill O'Reilly at a Marilyn Manson concert; then again, almost everything feels artificial in this gathering of rigid archetypes and warmed-over speeches. Roberts' character may be presented as a breath of fresh air, but the movie surrounding her is the cinematic equivalent of halitosis. **
MONSTER Anyone who's been paying attention knows that Charlize Theron is more than just a pretty face, yet her mesmerizing turn in writer-director Patty Jenkins' fact-based drama will finally allow the rest of the world to catch up. It isn't simply that Theron gained weight and thoroughly deglamorized herself to play the part of Aileen Wuornos, the prostitute who killed several men in Florida before finally being caught and executed. It's that she so completely buries herself in this woman's impetuousness, rage and vulnerability that she simply ceases to exist; it's a galvanizing performance in a difficult yet important film that manages to present Wuornos as both monster and victim. ***1/2
PETER PAN I've never been a fan of this classic tale in any of its numerous incarnations, so imagine my surprise as I fell victim to the rapturous spell of this live-action version, which rivals A Little Princess and The Secret Garden as a prime example of adding both artistry and adult sensibilities to a family project without placing it out of reach for the youngest viewers. Certainly, the small fry will enjoy watching Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) sailing through the air or the slapstick shenanigans of Tinkerbell (Ludivine Sagnier), but this PG-rated adaptation of J.M. Barrie's original tale often adopts a darker tone that provides added subtext for older viewers. Kudos to director P.J. Hogan and his team for creating such an eye-popping world. ***1/2
SOMETHING'S GOTTA GIVE Those of us who fell in love with Diane Keaton in Annie Hall now have an opportunity to rekindle that romance. She's simply smashing as a playwright not particularly fond of her daughter's new boyfriend, a 63-year-old bachelor (Jack Nicholson) who dates only women under 30. But eventually the pair find themselves overcoming their antagonism, leading to a rocky romance that's complicated by his womanizing ways and her burgeoning relationship with a boyish doctor (Keanu Reeves, never more appealing). For most of its length, this emerges as one of the premiere romantic comedies of recent years, but a disastrous, tacked-on ending hangs from the rest of the picture as awkwardly as a Florida chad. ***
THE BIG BOUNCE: Morgan Freeman, Owen Wilson.
GIRL WITH A PEARL EARRING: Colin Firth, Scarlett Johansson.
THE PERFECT SCORE: Erika Christensen, Scarlett Johansson.
THE TRIPLETS OF BELLEVILLE: Animated.
YOU GOT SERVED: Marques Houston, Steve Harvey.